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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 22, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 35
JHU Undergrad Wins Abell Foundation's Urban Policy Prize

Paper questions aggressive, zero tolerance policing tactics in Baltimore

By Kevin Sottak
Institute for Policy Studies

Johns Hopkins senior Blake Trettien has won the 2006 Abell Foundation Award in Urban Policy for his paper "Order-Maintenance Policing in Baltimore: The Failure of 'Broken Windows' as a Police Strategy." Trettien's paper questions the efficacy of so-called "zero tolerance" policing tactics, such as frequent stop-and-frisk searches and arrests for relatively minor offenses, adopted by city law enforcement officials in the late 1990s to help curb more serious crimes. These aggressive policing strategies grew out of the "broken windows" theory that argues that low-level social disorder invites more serious offenses.

Zero tolerance policing was credited with lowering crime rates in New York City in the 1990s and was subsequently adopted by other cities, including Baltimore. However, Trettien says, there is little evidence for a causal link between disorder and most serious crime, and there are significant costs for individuals, communities and the cities associated with zero tolerance tactics.

Co-sponsored by the Abell Foundation and the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, the Abell Award competition is open to full-time undergraduate and graduate students at Coppin State University; Goucher College; Johns Hopkins; Loyola College in Maryland; Morgan State University; Notre Dame College; Towson University; University of Baltimore; University of Maryland, Baltimore; UMBC; and the University of Maryland, College Park. The purpose of the competition is to encourage students to become more knowledgeable about and involved in the challenges facing the city.

"This was a very competitive year for the Abell Award, with more than half of the final submissions coming from doctoral students," said Sandee Newman, director of the Institute for Policy Studies and a member of the judging panel. "Blake's selection is all the more impressive for being the first time that an undergraduate has won the competition."

According to Trettien's analysis, Baltimore police made more than 21,000 warrantless arrests in 2004. Data for stop-and-frisk searches is less reliable, but the annual number may exceed 150,000, according to the paper. The direct cost to the city in wages for law enforcement personnel and processing and housing of arrestees runs into the millions of dollars, Trettien says. In addition, warrantless arrests add considerable stress to the already overburdened court system. Moreover, these aggressive practices have been found to undermine communities' trust in law enforcement and therefore the effectiveness of police officers. And individuals arrested under zero tolerance practices — even those who are released without charges — retain an arrest record that can significantly damage their employment prospects.

Trettien's paper proposes several adjustments to Baltimore's present zero tolerance policy: alternatives to arrest, such as citations for disorderly behavior and other minor offenses; harm-reduction strategies, such as automatic expungement of arrest records when charges aren't filed; and community policing, in which communities and law enforcement officials work jointly to identify and work with troublemakers.

Trettien, an economics and political science major, says that his interest in the topic was sparked by comments from fellow students about "heavy-handed" police tactics for relatively minor infractions. Delving a little deeper, he encountered a highly polarized political debate played out in the media and public forums — but no solid evidence to support the partisan rhetoric. "You had people who felt strongly on both sides of the issue, but where was the evidence behind it?" he asks.

Trettien will receive $5,000 for his winning paper. In addition, the paper will be circulated to relevant Baltimore policy-makers and opinion leaders and posted on the IPS and Abell Foundation Web sites ( and

At Hopkins, Trettien has served as president of the JHU chapter of the ACLU and was co-founder of a community association representing students living off campus. He graduates this week with university and departmental honors and plans to apply to law school with the goal of pursuing a career in public interest law and public policy.


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